You heard correctly. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against using baby powder as do many individual pediatricians. The issue is the talc that once was used in powders but, fortunately, has been eliminated in many of these products. Talc is a mineral composed of hydrated magnesium silicate. The danger is that babies can easily inhale tiny particles of it that are light enough to be carried in the air. When inhaled, talc can dry an infant's mucous membranes, adversely affect the baby's breathing, and cause serious lung damage. Studies have shown that talc can lead to shortness of breath and wheezing in babies and can also lead to obstruction of the airways. Some babies have developed pneumonia and some have died as a result of respiratory failure from inhaling the powder. Cornstarch isn't ideal either, but its particles are larger and are not as easily inhaled as talc. You should also be careful not to use either of these powders around older children or adults who have asthma because of the irritation it can cause when inhaled.
If you do use powder, be sure not to sprinkle it directly on your baby's body and keep it as far from the head as possible. It would be best to shake some of the powder on your hands away from the baby and then use your hands to apply it to the baby's bottom. Be sure to keep any powder you use in a childproof container so that other youngsters don't open it and accidentally spill it or shake it into the air.
As an alternative to baby powder, you can use over-the-counter creams or ointments made for treating diaper rash. Petroleum jelly is another option.
You may have read about a possible link between talcum powder and cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the principal concern is whether talc miners or others who have had long-term exposure to particles of the mineral are at higher risk of lung cancer as a result of breathing them in. In addition, some studies have suggested that women who regularly use talcum powder on the genital area have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
As for a link with lung cancer, the big question is whether talc itself might be at fault or whether small amounts of asbestos that occur with some kinds of talc are the problem. Other mineral exposures may also play a role. The American Cancer Society notes that no increased risk of lung cancer has been reported with consumer use of talcum powder.
The question of ovarian cancer risk among women who use talcum powder has not been settled. Some studies have shown a small increased risk and other investigations have shown none. However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization, classifies the use of talc-based powders on the genital region as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." Although the additional risk, if any, of ovarian cancer would be very small, the American Cancer Society suggests that women may want to avoid or limit the use of products containing talc.
Andrew Weil, M.D.